On July 19, at least 2,200 federally incarcerated people are set to be released under the First Step Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump with support from both Republicans and Democrats. The legislation was spearheaded by #cut50, an initiative of The Dream Corps, aiming to reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails.
As part of the First Step Act, more than 1,600 inmates have qualified for a reduced sentence, while more than 1,100 have already been released, the Department of Justice told the Associated Press.
When the legislation was first introduced last year, it faced criticism for not doing enough to reduce the length of prison sentences on the front end.
#cut50 co-founder Jessica Jackson, who went into law when her husband was incarcerated, and #cut50 national organizer Louis Reed, who spent 14 years in prison, told BET they reworked the proposed legislation by incorporating changes from their personal experiences.
The provisions in the First Step Act go even further than the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which helped to reduce the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences on the federal level. The provisions in the First Step Act retroactively reduced the sentences of nearly 2,600 inmates not affected by the previous legislation.
“When it comes to sentencing and the crack cocaine disparity, you have to think about the Black people who have been excessively prosecuted,” Reed told BET. “This bill rectifies this situation and allows folks to retroactively be released.”
“Yesterday, I met with someone who served 20 years in a life sentence, he was sentenced under the crack cocaine provision in 2005. He was released within a week after the First Step Act was signed into law,” Reed added.
The law also addresses the mandatory minimum sentences under federal law by expanding the “safety valve” judges use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases.
Additionally, the law eases the “three strikes” rule, which mandates people with three or more convictions, get sentenced to life. Now, people who commit three offenses, including non-violent drug crime, will automatically get 25 years.
For Reed, one of the most important provisions in the law was the addition of “good time credits” that men and women can earn while incarcerated.
Under previous laws, imprisoned people with good behavior could earn up to 47 “good time credit” days off their prison sentence per year incarcerated. Thanks to the new law, people can earn up to 54 “good time credits,” a change that could save a life.
“To someone who has never been incarcerated, seven days may not seem like a lot, but if I had those extra seven days, I would have been released six months prior to my actual release date, which means I possibly could have intervened in my nephew's shooting, which killed him,” Reed told BET.
“Even if I couldn’t intervene, I would have been able to be home with my family after his death, instead of being in a sterile atmosphere,” Reed added.
The law also allows for credits to be earned by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs, and those “time earned credits” would result in them being released early to halfway houses or home confinement.
This would not only reduce the prison population, but it would hopefully lower the likelihood of recidivism. For people being released from prison, some of the greatest challenges come after they leave, which is why #cut50 is also workshopping a special guide for those who were recently released.
“We’ve also created the 'First Step to Second Chances' guide, which is 200 pages of resources on how to transition to life after prison,” Jackson told BET. “People leave with a bus ticket and $100, but a lot of people need support from somewhere else. This is why we are working with organizations that help with second chance hiring, creating job training programs, and working with companies who make donations, like the Lyft car ride donations Kim Kardashian announced recently at the White House.”
“We are also putting together a hotline for people coming home to call and get help from an attorney,” she added.
As thousands of people prepare to be released under the new law, Reed shared his excitement and his hopes for the future.
"I'm so happy for the families that will be reunited today, but I can't help but think back to the first few days after I was released from federal prison, after serving nearly 14 years inside,” Reed said in a statement to BET. “I was living with the consequences of a crime I committed and faced unimaginable barriers in not only supporting myself post-incarceration but also supporting my family. I know firsthand that when you’re released from prison, the hardest part is not what came before, but what lies ahead. It’s imperative that we come together as businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals to make sure that the men and women returning home today because of the First Step Act are set up to succeed.”
(Photo: Oneworld/Getty Images)